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Why women’s health is still a big deal


Orla O’Connor

Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI)

The Referendum on the Eighth Amendment represented a momentous shift in how Ireland responds to women’s healthcare needs. The National Women’s Council of Ireland believes development of a Women’s Health Action Plan in 2019 has the potential to embed real and sustained change for women’s experience of healthcare.

For Orla O’Connor, the Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI), this year will be one of embedding change after seeing numerous women’s health issues hit the public consciousness in recent years, from the Repeal of the Eighth Amendment to #MeToo and the Scally inquiry into cervical cancer screening. Building on this renewed drive to improve women’s experience of healthcare, the NWCI will be working with the health service this year to develop a Women’s Health Action Plan.

She says, “We need to focus on women’s health because women are different from men, they experience different things while growing up and as adults; biological factors can influence health and well-being outcomes; and factors related to gender – such as women’s caring responsibilities – can affect treatment choices. Women’s health is about recognising these differences.

Yet, there hasn’t been a strong understanding of the different health needs of women and men, of the need to specifically focus on women’s health needs in developing policy and in the rolling out of services. The erosion of women’s health structures, such as the Women’s Health Council and women’s health officers, was called out in Dr Scally’s report into CervicalCheck which recommended consistent, committed attention which is now being given to women’s health.”

Scandals concerning women; trust needs to be restored

We need to speak to women about their experiences of healthcare. That’s the first conversation that has to be had.

Ireland has a history of scandals related to women’s health, from symphysiotomy to Hepatitis-C to last year’s CervicalCheck scandal. Indeed, one of the starkest comments from women quoted in the Scally report, was ‘Why does this always happen to women?.’

O’Connor says: “If we really want to improve women’s health and, crucially, if we are to restore women’s trust, we need to listen to what women say about their experiences of healthcare. This is the only way we can truly understand how gender inequality impacts women’s health.

The National Strategy for Women and Girls commits the Health Service Executive, the Department of Health and NWCI to develop a Women’s Health Action Plan. We are committed to working with our health service partners to make this plan a reality for women in 2019. 

“All policies are better when they are developed in collaboration with the people they are designed to support,” says Orla. “We need to speak to women about their experiences of healthcare. That’s the first conversation that has to be had.”

Tackling health inequalities for women in Ireland

“Developing the Women’s Health Action Plan will enable us to address the range of health issues women experience.  The plan will also need to be mindful of the needs of particular groups of women who have poor health outcomes. These women must be a priority. For example, traveller women have a life expectancy ten years lower than the population and incidences of lung cancer amongst women are higher in deprived areas, with poorer survival rates.” 

Women’s reproductive health

“There is a real sense of achievement in progressing women’s reproductive rights in Ireland. For the first time abortion is being provided by the public health service. The service still needs improvement to ensure that all women who need abortion can access it here at home. But we are also at the beginning of significant change in wider reproductive healthcare with attention turning to the need for comprehensive sexual health education and universal access to contraception.  Women’s reproductive healthcare services should be designed around the lifelong needs of women and girls. That’s why NWCI’s Every Woman Model for Reproductive Healthcareis based on six components: sexual health education; contraception; sexual and reproductive health services; pregnancy care; reproductive cancer care; and menopause services. We have a way to go to achieve such comprehensive services and we will continue to campaign until each element is in place.”

Women central to achieving change

O’Connor concludes, “After the Repeal referendum, young women are energised in articulating their own health needs. They recognise the possibilities for change and their own power to achieve it. We need to build on this momentum to secure a health service that is women-centred and that can meet the health needs women themselves have identified.” 

NWCI will now focus on achieving clear commitments and investment from Government for women’s health and on developing a women’s health action plan that is stretching and ambitious for women across the country.”

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